How to talk to your doctor about side effects

List of side effects

Just like you, your doctor wants your treatment to work well and to be easy to take.

But this means you need to describe your symptoms clearly and in detail – including how they affect your life. 

Your doctor can then check for other possible causes. For example, that diarrhoea is not related to food poisoning, or that sexual problems are not related to low testosterone.

The best way to do this is to keep a side effect diary. Record everything and take this when you see your doctor.

For each symptom, include information about how often, for how long, how badly – and the impact on your life.

A side effects diary is included in the link below. Take this diary with you when you see your doctor at your next appointment.

Side effects diary

Include frequency, duration, severity and impact on your life.

How often?

How often do you get symptoms?

  • Once or twice a week? Once every day? 5–10 times a day? etc
  • Do they occur at night as well as during the day?

How long?

How long do the symptoms last?

  • If you feel sick or get headaches, does this last for 20 minutes, 3–4 hours, or different lengths of time?
  • Is there a pattern? Is it two hours after each dose? or every morning etc?

How badly?

How bad are the symptoms?

  • Rate them on a scale (from 1 for mild to 5 for severe).
  • A scale is a useful for describing anything that involves pain.
  • Recording severity when side effects occur is better than trying to remember later.
  • Does anything help?

Quality of life

How do the symptoms affect your daily life?  This can really help your doctor understand how difficult the side effects are for you.

  • Some people put up with diarrhoea without explaining to their doctor that it stops them going to the pub or cinema. Explaining the impact on your life makes it easier for yor doctor to understand.
  • If you are feeling more anxious or nervous, are not sleeping properly, or have a lower sex drive, it is important that your doctor understands this.
  • If you have taste changes, or feel too sick to eat properly, tell your doctor.
  • Symptoms of lipodystrophy, the term for body fat changes, are difficult to measure. If this worries you it can change your whole outlook on life. Are you less social or less confident? Is this contributing to depression?
  • Do you miss taking your meds because of side effects?

Although minor changes may not be a problem, more severe symptoms can change your whole outlook on life, and lead to depression.

If side effects affect your adherence (ie you are not taking all your meds at the correct time), you must tell your doctor about this.

Last updated: 1 November 2021.